Two days I had a post about motivations of a culture. Telecanter and FrDave asked for some specific examples of motivations.
Using examples from the Majestic Wilderlands. Note that I am focusing on human cultures for this post. If there is interest I will be glad to go into the other races like Viridians, Elves, Dwarves, etc.
The Uttermost War
The common myth that nearly all cultures in the Wilderlands share is that there was a Dawn Age set in a Garden of Eden. The Demons revolted and enslaved the world driving the gods themselves into hiding. Then in the Uttermost War the Gods battled the Demons and liberated the survivors. The Demons were thrown into the Abyss and imprisoned. The survivors were given their freedom and the gods withdrew from the world and left priest to teach the mortal races how to survive and live together. Variants of this myth are found in all the religions and even the most tyrannical and twisted of the gods teach that the demons are to be feared and shunned.
The Powers of the World
Gods are real. Their power is vastly beyond the mortal races but they are not omnipotent or omniscient. The way I visualize is that they are the parents and the mortal races are six year olds. For various reasons they decided to spread their teachings through faith and are able to grant power to true believers. There are only a dozen greater gods who are known by different names in different cultures.
While their are a few other twists the main effect of this is that there a catholic or universal aspect that alway been present in the Wilderlands. Just as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share some common belief and history. Many of the religions of the Wilderlands recognize a common origin beyond that of mere chance. So far it hasn't ignited a Renaissance, Reformation, or Enlightenment but it has been noticed.
Then there are Elves. Immortal they provide a living memory back into the depths of time for the cultures they come into contact with. It as if in the 21st century we have people who knew and spoke with Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and other historical figures of the past. Cultures impacted by the Elves share common traits and are loosely grouped as Sylvan.
But Elvish influences has a dark side in that it acts as a deadweight around cultures of the shorter lived races. Most Sylvan cultures are by all accounts pleasant places to live but they are also stagnant. The vast experience of the elves is very useful for solving problems they encountered in the past. however fails when events occur that fall outside of elvish experience. Regions under Sylvan influence often have centuries or millennia of stable existence followed by a catastrophic collapse.
Humans are the baseline. Generally characterized by their sociability and loyalty to various groups starting with their immediate family.
The dominant thread running through the Ghinorian culture is their relationship with the Goddess Mitra. Mainstream Ghinorian culture believe they are her chosen people called upon to be the shining example of justice and honor in the wilderlands. To be the vanguard against the evil of the demons. The day to day application of their central myth is their adherence to the Mitra's law and their love of organization. The negative side is intolerance to other cultures with differing belief. The central drama of their culture since the fall of their Empire has been the conflict believe that Mitra's law is for all the Wilderlands versus who believe that Mitra's law is only for those born Ghinorian.
This is not to say that every Ghinorian is a feverant devotee of Mitra's law. Only that their upbringing is defined by it. Whether they love it, indifferent, or hate it.
The Thules are not really on-stage but after they discovered the existance of the demonic Viridians and their Empire two millenia ago they been sending missionaries northward into the Main Campaign Area.
Like the Ghinorians they believe they are the chosen people of a god. In this case Set. Set has adopted them as his sword-arm to rid the Wilderlands of Demons and their minions. Whatever the cost the Demons are to be destroyed or cast back into the Abyss. The Thules are noted for their love of Order, and their society is highly regimented and is considered tyrannical by other cultures. The central tension of their culture is with corruption. If it wasn't for Set's involvement through his priests Thule society would have long collapsed like the Mongols, Assyrians, Aztecs, or the Soviet Union.
Thules are not all order obsessed, demon haters. But like the situation with the Ghinorians and Mitra, those are born into Thule society are defined by their reaction to it.
The Sarnic are perhaps the most tragic of the Wilderland's cultures. Like the Thules and Ghinorians they believe they are a chosen people. In this case the chosen people of Hamakhis, Lord and Judge of the Dead. Originally they were peaceful and their defining quirk was the highly ritualistic natures of their daily life. For every actitivy they had a ritual invoking the name of Hamakhis, from the laying of the wood for the morning fire to the tucking at night of the children. Because Hamakhis was Lord and Judge of the Dead many of the ritual had necromantic trappings involving bones and other death symbols. Although at this time the undead were not part of mainstream Sarnic culture.
However at the height of their empire's power the Ghinorian made contact with the Sarnic. They were repelled by death symbols used everywhere in their lands and this led to conflict. Eventually the Ghinorian Empire launched the Sarnic Crusade and conquered their lands.
The conquest was the defining event for the Sarnic. To liberate themselves they turned to true necromancy and began the practice of human sacrifice. The war was bloody and long and left the Sarnic in the hands of ruthless warlords willing to do anything for power. Centuries after they freed themselves most Sarnics were slaves to the warlords and their necromancer priests.
Finally several hundred years ago the Order of Pangana appeared with the blessing of Hamakhis. Focusing on his aspect as Judge the Order checked the worst excesses of the priesthood and the warlords. Today the Sarnic are just coming out of a long dark age. Under the aegis of the Order of Pegana a Renaissance is beginning to sweep their City-States as they begin
to rediscover their pre-conquest culture.
The central drama of Sarnic Cultures is will the Renaissance take hold or will the necromancers and warlord reassert themselves and renew their tyranny. Those born Sarnic have a wide variety of backgrounds depending how and where they were born. Some experience their early years as slave while other experienced freedom under the protection of the Order of Pegana.
The Tharians are horse nomads from the Sea of Grass far in the west. Four centuries ago they swept into the Main Campaign Area carving out petty kingdoms from the husk of the Dragon Empire and eventually came to rule the City-State of the Invincible Overlord.
They are a clan based society and struggle to be loyal to anything beyond their clan. They believe that the spirits of their ancestor join the Lars under the watchful eyes of the High Lord. The Lars guides and defends the clan through the Mystics (clerics). The Tharians are noted for defending the honor of their clan to the death. The defining symbol of Tharian wealth are the number of horses an individual owns. Most Tharians conflicts are caused by horse thieves raiding other clans.
The central conflict of Tharian society is their success in conquering much of the Main Campaign Area and the City-State. Their own culture is suffering due to having to rule the older and more sophisticated Elessarian and Ghinorian Cultures. Their history have not prepared them to rule city states, and judge commerical disputes of merchants. Their society is fracturing as many are attracted to other religions and cultures that provide the answer their own lacks. The remainder wrap themselves in tradition and try to hold back the world by any means they can. The arrival of Thule Missionaries bringing the teaching of Set has particular appeal to many younger Tharians.
The largest of the Silvan influenced cultures they arrived in the Main Campaign Area several millienia ago after traveling from the Sea of Grass far to the west. They originally settled in the Elphand Lands to the west of the Elven Kingdom of Irminsul. There was some initial conflict but after a century the two societies became allies in the Elvish wars against the Viridians. They proved instrumental in the fall of the First Empire and afterwards spread eastward into the rest of the Main Campaign Area.
For the next two Millenia their fortune waxed and waned. Some of their lands like the Kingdom of Dunador in the Elphand lands and the Kingdom of Antil to the south of City-State are free kingdoms. While others are subjects of the Viridian Successor Kingdoms or the Tharians of City-State.
Their cultures is clan based. But the clans are smaller than Tharian clans; being more of an extended family than a entire tribe. Individual clans focused on a single estate or occuputation like blacksmithing or tailoring. Their contact with the Elves awoken a love of learning and bards became one of the highest callings in Elessarian society. From the early Bards the the druidic order of Trehaens developed. Today the Trehaen incorporate clerics, druids, magic-users, as well as bards. In the free kingdoms of the Elessarians the Trehean are the keepers of the law and judge all legal dispute based on an extensive body of common law . Elessarian nobles act more as police and military commander then rulers issuing decrees. Even Elessarian Kings are subject to the law of the Trehaen.
Currently the central conflict of Elessarian society is the feeling is that their culture is waning. While they learned a lot from the Elves it left them unprepared to deal with younger and more dynamic cultures. Several time in the past millenia they had to deal with other cultures sweeping into the Main Campaign Area. Each time they adapted often emerging as full partners with former rivals. Now with the Tharians, the Elessarians struggle again. But there is hope with the collapse of the Viridistan Empire and the fact there are still free Elessarian Kingdoms.
There is lot of information to digest here. There is a lot that I didn't put into this post. To be honest it is mostly timelines and king's list. While useful to me to keep all this organized in my mind. Many don't find them interesting.
My job as referee is to take all these specifics and distill it for the players. As I explained in earlier posts, I ask the players what they want to play in general terms and then lay out options and explain their implications.
If the player is starting City-State and wants to play a thief. I know that City-State is a cultural crossroads with Ghinorian, Elessarian, and Tharian cultures. I would explain that there is the Bortherhood of the Lion which was originally a Ghinorian resistance group to the conquest of City-State. Now it is a century later and they are little better than a gang of thugs. There are also the Beggars which are dishonored horseless Tharians who banded together for survival. Finally there are a few Elessarians down on their luck who hang out in traveling minstrel bands do what they can to scrap a living by their wits.
From these broad descriptions I work with the player to refine his character concept to specific allies, and enemies along with bits of information. All of this provide an initial point for the player make decisions about his character in the larger sandbox campaign that is my Majestic Wilderlands. It also lessen my workload as often there only a handful of reasonable choices that I have to do prep for. It provides for future adventure as the players works towards achieving his goals and resolving the conflicts of his background.
It is also works for players who can't roleplay as this process sets up what I call natural situations. Even if the player is roleplaying a version of himself in the setting his reactions still ring true as he adventures and reacts to the consequences of his background.